Billy Bragg should stick to singing

He may be a great musician, but Billy Bragg’s logical faculties are somewhat lacking — that is, if his op-ed piece on the music industry in the New York Times is anything to go by. Billy writes about the sale of Bebo, and how the musicians and artists who have profiles on the site deserve to have a share of that $850-million or so. Why? Because Bebo has been “using their music to draw members รขโ‚ฌโ€ and advertising.”

The first thing I thought of when I read Billy’s call to arms was Nick “The Prophet of Web 2.0 Doom” Carr’s repeated tirades about “digital sharecropping,” and sure enough, Nick has posted another essay along those lines that uses Billy as the latest example. Nick says that:

“exploitation is exploitation, no matter how lovingly it’s wrapped in neo-hippie technobabble about virtual communities, social production, and the gift economy.”

Unless I’m mistaken, exploitation is when you take advantage of someone and they are powerless to prevent it, or in some cases when you trick someone into giving you something. Bebo has done neither of these things — nor has YouTube, or Flickr, or any of the other “digital sharecroppers” that people single out. As Mike Arrington notes at TechCrunch, all of the people who have taken part in Bebo and MySpace and so on have done so knowing full well that they are not going to be paid. No one forced them to do so.

Billy also talks about how:

“the claim that sites such as MySpace and Bebo are doing us a favor by promoting our work is disingenuous [because] radio stations also promote our work, but they pay us a royalty that recognizes our contribution to their business.”

First of all, radio stations don’t pay artists to play their music — they pay publishers and copyright-holders (most of which doesn’t make its way to artists) because of the “mechanical license,” a form of compulsory licensing, and in return radio stations get to play whatever they want, whenever they want. Is Billy in favour of extending that right to anyone on the Internet? I doubt it. Fred Wilson is right — there needs to be a better way to compensate artists, but taking money from Bebo isn’t it.

Further reading:

Gerd Leonhard has some thoughts along the same lines as Fred’s, and The Stalwart says artists and the Internet are now in the same position as subway musicians (something I have a little experience with myself, even if it was 25 years ago) — although that’s not a comparison Billy likes much, judging by his comment.

The Stalwart has since updated his post, adding a response to Billy’s comment — but my favourite part is that The Stalwart’s wife has also posted a comment, agreeing with Billy ๐Ÿ™‚ And Andrew Dubber of New Music Strategies puts some things in perspective (as usual) in his post on the subject. Mike Masnick of Techdirt — who also joined in the comments on The Stalwart’s post — has now put up a longer look at the topic, and Matt Mason (author of The Pirate’s Dilemma) has a good post at Torrentfreak, in which he says that both Billy and Mike are wrong.

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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